March 7th, 2005

Restaurant Reviews; Selen's, Star of India, Japanica

We've eaten out rather a bit lately, and I thought the restaurants might be worth mentioning: one old, two new; two good, one disappointing.

Selen's is the old place. In one incarnation or another, Selen's has been around for at least twenty years as a supper club specializing in prime rib, steaks and the usual sort of other entrees. We went there Feb 23rd, largely because I had a craving for what our friend Henry Osier calls "big meat." Selen's is the place to go, indeed. You can get a cut of prime rib as big as you like. Not wanting to go to ridiculous extremes, I ordered the Queen Cut prime rib, and Georgie had the petite filet mignon. Both were as good as we had remembered, although we hadn't been there in years. I splurged and had the French onion soup, which is very good and comes with a huge piece of cheese melted over it, and the twice-baked potato. All wickedly good.

Star of India is a newish Indian place downtown, which we hit for lunch before the opera. Star has one of the most extensive buffets of any area Indian restaurant, including the usual items, but with a few new things such as "carrot pudding" which one does not usually find. All of the dishes were well-prepared and tasty, which made it a deal that couldn't be beaten at a mere $6.99 each (plus tax).

On Saturday the 5th we didn't want to cook, so tested Japanica, a new Japanese restaurant in the Greenfield Fashion Center near Southridge. We'd had rave reviews of it from our friend Nancy Mildebrandt, as well as a good write-up of it in Milwaukee Magazine. The restaurant is large and bright, with seating at the sushi bar, "tappanyaki" tables, or conventional seating, which we opted for. We ended up on the quiet side, away from the hibachi tables, which was fine with us. A distant glimpse of the flaring flames occasionally suited our mood. I was surprised to see the large number of families with youngish children there, as I don't think of sushi or even teriyaki as child-friendly tastes. The restaurant was busy all the time we were there. I ordered a sushi appetiser, and a salmon teriyaki dinner. Georgie ordered the mixed tempura dinner, both of which entitled us to a "house salad" and miso soup. These were the first of a series of minor disappointments. The house salad was just a serving of plain lettuce in a bowl, dressed with a concoction the color of thousand island dressing, but with a very unpleasant, very sharp, oniony (possibly horserashishy?) flavor. Neither of us ate it. The miso soup had a mild undertone of root cellar, and was sparsely garnished with a few very tiny tofu cubes. The sushi appetiser came essentially along with the entrees (although service in general was fast)and consisted of five pieces with generous cuts of fish. The "chef's choice" was pretty obviously geared toward newbies, with nothing challenging: the usual suspects of tuna, salmon, sweet shrimp, yellowtail, and another brown and white fish that might have been either mackerel or red snapper. Unfortunately, the sushi just was not first class. I found the fish limp and tasteless, even accompanied by wasabi and ginger. It all tasted basically the same, and the only one I would have been able to distinguish from the others with my eyes closed would have been the shrimp. My impression was that the fish lacked freshness, something I was surprised by given the amount of traffic in the place on this Saturday night. I would have expected the service to be slow but the cuts to be fresh due to volume. I was wrong. My salmon teriyaki suffered the same deficit. It was attractively presented on a sizzling bed of onions like a tandoori dish, with a side of steamed vegetables, of which the pea pods had a woody texture. The salmon was just--lacking in taste and texture, even though the teriyaki sauce was very nice. I have had SO much better salmon in other restaurants as well as at home, that it was really disappointing. Georgie's tempura was good, though, and they stock a good brand of plum wine. However, when I ordered a second cup of tea and it came tasting of miso, that was the last straw, and I'm afraid I went home rather grumpy.

The Merchant of Venice

We were looking forward with interest to the new film of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." Although it has awkward bits, "Merchant" is a particular favorite of mine, and I once wrote a paper in college arguing that if you could only keep one Shakespeare play, "Merchant" should be the one, combining as it does his tragedy and his comedy. Although the production was in many ways beautiful, I found it very keenly disappointing. Most upsetting was Al Pacino's portrayal of Shylock. He concentrated very much on creating a believable portrait of an aging Jew driven to the point of turning upon his oppressors, but made it seem more out of desperation than wounded pride and rage. His Shylock lacked fire. Jeremy Irons added to the enervated tone with his worn-out, depressed Antonio, who seems to welcome Shylock's murderous intention as a way of comitting suicide. These famous actors are totally overshadowed by Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio and Lynn Collins as Portia, for whom the accolade "fair" in its classical sense is well-suited (I have a weakness for pale women with red hair--). The Lexoumburg Gardens are beautiful as Belmont, but Venice is dark, dreary and crowded, with the sound of the crowded scenes being confused and difficult to hear. I see many critics rating it a "B" and I have to agree.